New Delhi: Late morning in the Paharganj neighbourhood, and the narrow lanes heave with movement. Cross-legged on the pavement, four men bind books in red leather; across the road, a man sells pomegranates and fresh green coconuts; the woman next door deals in glass marbles and wooden spinning tops; nearby, gulab jamuns—balls of dough soaked in syrup—are frying in a vast vat of boiling oil.
It is a scene much-photographed by backpackers to India, who stay in Paharganj’s cheap hotels, a stone’s throw from the New Delhi railway station at the heart of the Capital. But the city authorities view this vibrant stretch of land as the embodiment of everything that is wrong with the city.
A new government vision document for the Capital, the Delhi Master Plan, proposes that the area be demolished and replaced by high-rise apartment blocks.
Delhi is bursting and the only way is up. If Baron Haussmann’s plan for transforming Paris lay in replacing crowded lanes with wide, unbarricadable boulevards, Union minister of state for urban development Ajay Maken dreams of creating new space to house the city’s exploding population by growing vertically.
His Master Plan 2021, which took effect last month, sets out a recipe for transforming India’s Capital into a “world-class city”, guided by three priorities: obliterating the slums, taming the traffic and importing a Manhattan skyline. On the surface, this dense 200-page document, filled with annexations on sewage systems and arterial road routes, is a dry piece of officialese. But beneath the small print, it is a brave attempt to tackle an urgent problem: how do you transform a chaotic, traffic-choked, churning city into a “global metropolis” worthy of representing India’s ambitions to become the next Asian superpower?
As it is, Delhi is a planner's nightmare. Go beyond the carefully laid-out, green showpiece terrain of New Delhi—home to the Prime Minister, the city’s elite and the best hotels—and there is architectural anarchy. The government estimates that around 60% of the city’s 15 million inhabitants live in homes that are illegal—in slums, in unauthorized developments or in unplanned and unsafe buildings.
Because these areas do not exist officially, they have no safe water supply, no legal electricity system and no proper sewers. Resourceful residents have made do: artfully siphoning water from the mains, risking their lives to sling wires onto nearby electricity pylons to steal power. The city’s central water and power supplies are barely able to cope with this extra, invisible demand; most areas receive water for just a couple of hours a day, while extended power outages occur daily.
The ministry of urban development has concluded that if 60% of the people in the city are living outside of the law, then the problem lies with the law itself. With a stroke of a pen, the new plan legalizes the homes of around three-and-a-half million people, who have until now lived in fear of seeing their homes knocked down.
Areas deemed dangerous will be redeveloped and roughly two million slum dwellers will be rehoused, many of them in the tall developments.
“To be a world-class city, we need to have good-quality housing,” Maken said in an interview in his office in an upmarket part of Delhi where power cuts are rare and the water supply is good (although monkeys dance on the cars of officials outside, resistant to all campaigns to banish them).
Since the 1950s, successive governments have restricted housing construction to one state body, the Delhi Development Authority. But this organization failed to keep pace with spiralling demand and, as a result, newcomers to the city have been forced to build for themselves illegally.
Maken has concluded that the state-backed system has proved disastrous, and the new plan (the third drawn up for the city since 1962) allows private developers into the housing market for the first time.
To give these developers an incentive, the plan abolishes restrictions on tall construction in all but a few historical areas. Building upward is a radical solution for a city where height restrictions keep most buildings at tree level. But, since the government has been unable to stop the annual arrival of around half a million migrants driven by rural poverty, it now says radical action is necessary. By 2021, the Capital’s population is forecast to rise to 23 million, and the masses must be housed somehow.
“We will have more open spaces and more high-rise buildings,” Maken said. “The skyline of the city will change. People will no longer be forced to live in narrow lanes in subhuman conditions. You can't convert the whole of Delhi into Manhattan, but some parts will go that way.”
Unsurprisingly, the plan is controversial. K.T. Ravindran, dean of the Delhi School of Planning and Architecture, warned that India was not culturally suited to the high-rise.
“You’ll get whole communities who don’t look each other in the eye, where the only human contact is when they yell at the person in the next car,” he said.
Author of Delhi’s first Master Plan, Jagmohan, a retired politician who uses only one name, was also scathing, remarking that the proposal would turn Delhi into a world-class city only if one equated high-rise blocks with sophistication. “And what message are you giving by legalizing illegal settlements? You’re saying that anyone who has infringed the law will now stand to gain,” he said.
Serving tea from his pavement tea stall, Surjit Singh Bedi, 60, said he had no sentimental attachment to the streets of Paharganj that have been his home for the past 55 years.
“If there is electricity, there is no water. If there is water, there is no electricity,” he said. “The power lines are so dangerous that houses keep catching fire. The traffic is so bad that the houses are burnt out before the fire engines can get here. I’ve never been in a tower block, but I’d be willing to sell up and move.”